|Coretta Scott King|
There is a certain quality of graciousness that marks many southern Black women of my parents' generation. A reliable kindness. A characteristic refinement of posture, even in ease. Not stiff, but regal. A gentle, sure tone of voice that can turn fiery, when needed, but mostly is like water.
The women who carry this trait often lived through years of tremendous injustice, but they also lived within Black communities that were protective of children and encouraged them to know that they had the God-given potential to do greater things than the restrictions of the outside society allowed. In other words, within the violence and profound contradictions of pre-WWII southern life, these women were well-mothered. The examples of their own mothers, grandmothers, aunts and teachers – they tell us repeatedly in oral histories – were of women who found incredible resources in their faith, in their cultural traditions and in the ways they helped each other balance the heaviness of racism with the light of their own gloriousness. This was not a simple balance and I don't know, as someone born in later years, that I have a full understanding of what it takes to move in the world with the grace of the women who came before me. But I recognize the capacity and I am sure that it was planted in us by our enslaved ancestors as a medicine to keep the traumas of American apartheid from overcoming our souls.
When I last saw Coretta Scott King, in January 2005, I was keenly aware of this quality of graciousness and strength in her bearing. She had just delivered a public lecture at the Temple Buell Theater in downtown Denver. She spoke with calm conviction about the profound errancy of the Iraq War and the unexplored power of love and reconciliation as a resource for national and international policy-making. After her talk I spent a few private moments with her backstage before she was due at a reception. She greeted me with such a striking combination of warmth and elegance that I instinctively knelt on the floor beside her and held her hand as we conversed. This was the way I sometimes greeted my grandmother when she was alive. And it is how the high priestesses of many religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora are addressed.
I didn't know Coretta well. But she knew my parents and like most of the women with whom my mother and father worked in the Freedom Movement, she treated me as family whenever we met. My folks worked with Coretta and Martin in the 1960s – first as colleagues in desegregation campaigns of the Deep South and later, after Martin's death, in the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change where my dad served for a time as director. They were friends and neighbors. My parents, African American members of one of the historic “peace-church” denominations, were representatives of the Mennonite church to the Movement, full-time racial justice activists who established “Mennonite House” an interracial voluntary service center and Movement community retreat space that was located around the corner from the King family home. Even after my family moved away from Atlanta in the mid-1970s, the legacy of Martin and the Movement were very present in our household, due to my parents' activism and my father's writings, lectures and teaching.
I hope that with Coretta's death (and that of Rosa Parks, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, my mother, and so many others who are passing over to the side of the ancestors) we will recognize what a great fellowship, what a joy divine, what everlasting arms we lean on in the love of those who mother the movement.
However it was my mother's experience and perspective that helped me develop an appreciation of Coretta's particular strength. It is a strength and it is a wisdom shared among many Black women of their age; women who embodied, at times simultaneously, remarkable restraint and extraordinary passion -- for justice, for “right” -- in both their personal lives and social contexts. It is also a strength that understands hospitality and warmth as tools for healing deep wounds; mothering (in its broadest and best sense) as the foundation of compassionate social justice organizing. Like Coretta, other mothers of the Freedom Movement -- such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Anne Braden, Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, and Florence Jordan -- were fiercely committed to working for social justice. At the same time, they understood how important it is to nurture individuals and communities through a sense of connection to history, to faith, to the refuge of family; and through a respect and dignity that modeled the inclusive “beloved community” they were fighting for.
When my own mother passed in 2004, Coretta called me. We hadn't been in touch in years and I felt honored that she would seek me out to give me her condolences and counsel. Not only did she say beautiful things about my mother's friendship and reconciling spirit, she urged me to let myself grieve and told me not to worry about finding my way in the world in the absence of my mother's physical company. She said, “Your mother will always be with you and God will always send people to help you do the work you are meant to do.”
Coretta's advice reminded me of a wonderful Yoruba saying that goes, “If you stand with the blessings of God and your mother, it matters not who stands against you.” I felt comforted by her words.
Those brief recent interactions with Coretta deeply encouraged me. Now, in the weeks since her transition January 30, I see her role and her legacy as inclusive of her husband's powerful, radical message of peace and justice, but also inclusive of the long tradition of gracious and mighty women who provided the foundation of welcome, compassion, inclusivity and speaking-truth-to-power that characterized so much of the best of the southern Freedom Movement. Because these mothering qualities have long been associated with women and with the South, they are insufficiently acknowledged as vital resources for social justice activism. I hope that with Coretta's death (and that of Rosa Parks, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, my mother, and so many others who are passing over to the side of the ancestors) we will recognize what a great fellowship, what a joy divine, what everlasting arms we lean on in the love of those who mother the movement.